Will Congress throw the American economy off a cliff?

The clock is ticking

A person getting tossed.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

America is careening towards an economic cliff. The resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic is clearly beginning to bite the economies of many states, and deeper recessionary forces are taking hold. Eviction moratoriums are set to end in many states at the end of the month, and 28 million people could become homeless in a matter of weeks. Perhaps most importantly, the huge boost to unemployment insurance that Congress passed as part of the CARES Act is going to expire on July 25 — sucking billions of dollars of spending out of the economy, and driving millions more Americans into destitution.

Republicans in Congress, of course, have been dithering and procrastinating. After taking a two-week vacation, it looks extremely unlikely that they will get anything passed before the program expires, and they may not do anything at all. The effect would be to fling America into the economic abyss.

As I have written before, super-unemployment is the only thing keeping tens of millions of Americans from starving — indeed, the program is by far the most generous thing the federal government has done for lower-income people in generations. It is also the main thing propping up spending more broadly, and hence supporting tens of millions of other jobs that depend on benefit-collectors having money in their pockets.

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Republicans, of course, are mad about exactly this generosity. They hate the fact that the program pays people who make less than the average wage more if they get laid off. Not only is that a completely goofy objection at a time when there are four job-seekers for every available job, and during a pandemic in which we shouldn't want most people to work in any case, these objections could also be addressed. The federal government could nationalize the unemployment system, and set up a program that pays people 100 percent of their previous income. Or they could add more money to the next round of stimulus checks, or both.

Furthermore, there are much more serious problems with unemployment insurance than generosity. Millions of eligible laid-off people have not been getting their benefits because state unemployment systems are either ancient and decrepit or have been deliberately designed to not pay out benefits. Something very badly needs to be done either to help and/or force states to fix their systems, or simply take over the administration entirely.

Yet Senate Republicans have not even mentioned fixing janky state unemployment bureaucracies. Instead, they watched the weeks pass while the super-unemployment expiration timer ticked towards zero, and at least eight other vital priorities went unaddressed. Only over the last week or so have Republicans started serious negotiation with House Democrats and the White House. President Trump abruptly added a payroll tax holiday to his list of demands recently an idea that isn't terrible but doesn't seem to have much congressional support which throws an additional wrench in the negotiation process.

I have been watching both American political parties fail to rise to the occasion for my entire adult life, yet I confess the complete lack of urgency in facing this problem is still astonishing. House Democrats have passed a six-month extension of super-employment in the HEROES Act, but with few exceptions they have not tried to pressure Republicans by screaming bloody murder day in and day out. As usual, they seem to hope the economic pressure will do the political work for them.

If the U.S. had any kind of real democratic culture, members of Congress would not be so cavalier about twiddling their thumbs while millions of people are teetering on the edge of destitution. Franklin Roosevelt correctly viewed his New Deal program as necessary to preserve the republic — if the national government cannot arrange things such that the people have something to eat and a roof over their heads, it risks falling to a revolution. Incumbent political leaders often fare less than well when that happens. But many Republicans are not only resistant to further pandemic rescues, they straight-up oppose them.

Americans have long been one of the most docile, easily-bullied peoples on Earth. As David Bentley Hart writes, most of us passively accept the kind of abuse from our government that would have other democratic nations in flames (in part because of our brutally authoritarian criminal punishment system, to be fair). But one cannot count on that forever. A downtrodden people may endure horrible treatment for years, only for a spark to set off destabilizing unrest. That was what happened with the George Floyd movement against police brutality, which were probably the largest mass protests in American history, and still continue in many cities. If members of Congress don't want to end up like the clueless leaders of other crumbling governments, I suggest they take the welfare of their constituents more seriously.

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